KNOXVILLE — Tennessee pledged to return to the Final Four this season. First the Lady Volunteers must get past coach Pat Summitt’s alma mater and a possible rematch with Baylor.
The Lady Vols drew a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament on Monday night and will face 15th-seeded Tennessee-Martin, where Summitt played from 1970-74. The teams will meet in Chicago on Saturday and are part of the Des Moines regional along with undefeated No. 1 seed Baylor.
“How about UT Martin?” Summitt said after she and the team watched the selection show at her home. “I never would have thought about that, but it’s real neat.
“I like my alma mater, but I like winning and moving on better.”
Tennessee has played in every NCAA tournament and has only failed to reach the round of 16 once. The current crop of Lady Vols pledged to return to the Final Four this season after a three-year absence and to win a ninth national championship for Summitt, who announced in August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
Summitt hasn’t indicated if this will be her final season coaching, instead pledging to keep coaching as long as she is able. To help with that, the Hall of Fame coach has turned over more of the day-to-day responsibilities with the team to her longtime assistants.
The five Tennessee seniors were part of the team who suffered the program’s only first-round loss in 2009 and have never been to the Final Four. No Lady Vols class has ever graduated without reaching the NCAA national semifinals at least once.
“Every game is going to be challenging,” senior forward Glory Johnson said. “Every game is going to be tough for us. We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game every game, and we know that. As seniors we’ve been there. We’ve been knocked out early. We’ve made it farther. We’ve just got to try to get to that Final Four. If we don’t get to that Final Four it will be disappointing for us seniors.”
The path won’t be an easy one.
The winner of the first-round game will go on to face either No. 10 seed BYU or No. 7 DePaul, which the Lady Vols beat 84-61 in the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York. Third-seeded Delaware and sixth-seeded Nebraska are other teams that could prove to be stumbling blocks before a possible meeting with Baylor in the round of eight.
Tennessee (24-8) hosted Baylor on Nov. 27 and led the Lady Bears at halftime and through much of the second half only to run out of steam late and lose 76-67.
“We just hope at some point we get the opportunity to play Baylor,” associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “I’m not sure we’d be happy with any region. Everything is a challenge for us.”
The Lady Vols have had an up-and-down season ever since.
They beat fellow two seed Kentucky soundly in Knoxville and blew through the Southeastern Conference tournament, beating LSU in the championship game. They also suffered blowout losses at Stanford and Notre Dame and lost a program-high three games at home this season.
Tennessee-Martin (23-8) is making its second consecutive and second overall appearance in the NCAA tournament after winning the Ohio Valley Conference regular season and tournament. The Skyhawks were the No. 15 seed last season, losing to No. 2 Duke.
Tennessee holds a 13-2 all-time record against the Skyhawks, with the only two losses coming in 1971 and 1972, during Summitt’s playing career.
“We know it’s do-or-die. We’ve got to take it one game at a time. Right now our focus is UT Martin. We’re very hungry,” Tennessee senior forward Shekinna Stricklen. “We haven’t been to a Final Four, and that’s our main goal. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got and that’s starting with our first game against UT-Martin.”